Newall: He heard about the heroin that killed people - and wanted some
BY MIKE NEWALL | INQUIRER COLUMNIST Benny stumbled, heroin in hand, into a trash-strewn lot on D Street near Somerset in Kensington. It was early Monday and Benny, who is 37 and panhandles downtown at Eighth and Market Streets, was sick from want of a fix.
Benny stumbled, heroin in hand, into a trash-strewn lot on D Street near Somerset in Kensington. It was early Monday and Benny, who is 37 and panhandles downtown at Eighth and Market Streets, was sick from want of a fix.
To score, he'd ridden the El to this hard corner, in the heart of Philadelphia's heroin epidemic. A week earlier, a man had been found dead from an overdose in the same field Benny now knelt in, preparing his needle. Five others died within hours on nearby blocks.
Benny didn't know the dead. But he had heard about the heroin that killed them. "The good bags," he said. He wanted some.
"You find out people are dying from it - you got to find it," Benny said after rolling up the sleeve of his green hoodie and injecting himself.
In the middle of this city's unprecedented heroin crisis, Benny played chance with his life. Thirty-five people died from the drug over five days earlier this month, officials said. That's after 50 city overdoses - five of them fatal - on a single day in November. The deaths have been attributed to either batches of lethally pure heroin or the deadly cutting of the drug with powerful synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which magnified heroin's potency 50 times.
Five years ago, officials recorded 438 overdose deaths in Philadelphia. This year, that number could surpass 900.
Last month, Mayor Kenney announced a task force to combat the city's opioid epidemic, demanding a plan of action within 90 days. There have been other plans.
In March, with support from the city health department, the Kensington needle exchange program, Prevention Point Philadelphia, and other community stakeholders produced a blueprint for halving city overdose deaths within five years. The plan called for the declaration of a public health emergency, widespread distribution of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, an increased early-warning system for overdoses, and far better access to treatment.
But that plan found a city shelf. And now we begin again.
How do you measure this epidemic? You walk the streets where the hurt is the worst. You go to Kensington.
There, the urgency is easily found.
It's clear in the face of Elvis Rosado, a Prevention Point coordinator, as he waits for the inevitable banging on the door and news of yet another overdose. In recent weeks, he's saved two people's lives by administering naloxone. Now he walks Kensington Avenue, looking for others to help.
It's plain in the voice of Chris Marshall, director of Last Stop Sobriety, as he recalled four friends from his Kensington recovery center who have died in recent months - a higher rate of fatalities, he said, than ever before.
"Giddy, happy - made you happy just being around her," he said of a woman in her 20s who died in September.
"Smart, intelligent - could have been a CEO of a company," he said of a 31-year-old man who died last week.
The urgency was there in the young faces gathered at Last Stop for a recovery meeting Monday night. The room was so packed with city and suburban kids, you could be forgiven for momentarily thinking you had walked into Johnny Brenda's. If it were only that.
And the urgency was there in Benny's eyes, his sunken cheeks. He was tall and thin, with uncut brown hair. His pants were torn and soiled. In the pull of addiction, Benny was a shadow of whomever it was he used to be.
He comes from Glassboro, he said, but did not offer his last name because, he said, there is a warrant out, for stealing copper and leaving a court-ordered drug program. He sleeps in an alley behind a Burger King, and he holds up a sign that reads, "Just Hungry."
Benny's hunger is fierce.
And now he wanted the good bags. The ones marked "Super Death."
But the dealers were all out of that kind.
"I just did crap," he said, tossing away the emptied heroin baggie.
He'd have to come back later, he said. And with that, Benny left the field where yet another man had died from drugs in Philadelphia, but he had survived for at least another day.